San Juan College grads emphasize resiliency at commencement

Acting director of Indian Health Service delivers keynote address

Megan Petersen
Farmington Daily Times
  • The student commencement speaker overcame several family, financial and medical obstacles before graduating.
  • Keynote speaker Rear Adm. Michael D. Weahkee challenged graduates to use their knowledge to better their families and society.
  • Graduates ranged in age from 17 years old to 71 years old.

FARMINGTON — The San Juan College community celebrated and congratulated some 1,500 students in the graduating class of 2018 today.

More than 1,300 San Juan College students, as well as more than 125 students from the Farmington programs of New Mexico Highlands University and the University of New Mexico, received diplomas or certificates during today’s commencement ceremony at the college.

Keynote speaker Rear Adm. Michael D. Weahkee, the acting director for the Indian Health Service who was born in Shiprock and graduated from Aztec High School and San Juan College, encouraged students to enjoy the moment, “because you’ll remember it for the rest of your lives as one of your proudest moments, but I also want you to remember that the word ‘commencement’ means beginning, not end.

“Today is a date to celebrate your accomplishments, but also to look forward to how you will use the knowledge you’ve obtained from San Juan College for the betterment of your families and our society as a whole,” Weahkee said.

San Juan College graduates turn their tassels during the 2018 commencement ceremony on Saturday at the college.

Student commencement speaker Maria Olivo also encouraged graduates to not give up, even in the face of hardship. Olivo said she struggled with financial and medical obstacles during the course of her education, but those “setbacks only made me more determined to succeed.

“Each of us have a decision to make every single day,” Olivo said. “We can let life control our path, we can let it hold us back or hinder us from reaching our potential or we can decide to change our path in life. We can choose to go after our dreams. It doesn’t matter how old one is or how much money one has, or what experiences we have had.”

Thousands of graduates and visitors attended the 2018 San Juan College commencement ceremony on Saturday at the college.

Many 2018 graduates do not fit the mold of the typical college student who enrolls after graduating high school. San Juan College President Toni Hopper Pendergrass recognized graduates who were parents and grandparents, as well as students who worked while going to school and students who traveled more than 50 miles to attend classes.

Pendergrass said graduating students ranged in age from 17 years old to 71 years old.

Verrona Cardinal, who earned her associate degree in psychology, enrolled in college courses after several years as a homemaker. Though she said the experience was “nerve wracking,” graduating means “everything” to her.

Rear Adm. Michael D. Weahkee, acting director of the Indian Health Service, gives the keynote speech during the 2018 San Juan College commencement ceremony on Saturday at the college.

“I’m just really, really proud of myself for getting this far,” Cardinal said, adding “it’s never too late to go back to school, and your dreams are always reachable.”

Landon Harrison, who earned his welding certificate, said he took college classes in the early 1990s before having a family and entering the work force, but he returned to school more than 20 years later.

“I feel happy and proud and satisfied (about graduating). I did it, and I’m just ecstatic about it,” Harrison said before today’s ceremony, adding that his advice to people in a similar situation is “once you start, finish it. Don’t quit. Once you stop, it’s hard coming back.”

Graduates listen to student speaker Maria Oliva's address during the 2018 commencement ceremony on Saturday at San Juan College.

Jose Martinez, who graduated with an associate degree in instrumentation control and electrical from the School of Energy, said finding the time to attend and finish school, especially as a nontraditional student, can be a challenge, but it is well worth it. Martinez started taking classes after approximately eight years as a welder in order to be closer to his wife and four children.

“I went from making really good money to working two full-time jobs, going to school full-time and raising my kids, so everything was moving really fast,” Martinez said. “… There were times when it was really hard, and me and my wife struggled really bad a lot to get through it all financially, and I was still never home, but all I can think of is today and the end result. It’s been a blessing.”

A student waits to be called to the stage during the 2018 commencement ceremony on Saturday at San Juan College.

Kaylee Murphy was one of four high school students to earn a college certificate or degree before receiving their high school diploma through the college’s dual-enrollment program. Murphy said she’ll receive her diploma from Aztec High School on Friday, so it felt “weird” to receive her associate degrees in both business administration and liberal arts today.

“It finally feels real,” Murphy said, adding that it’s important to “never give up. I’ve failed many, many times over the years, and failure definitely stinks, but (not giving up) is well worth it.”

Megan Petersen covers business and education for The Daily Times. Reach her at 505-564-4621 or